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Academy Xi Blog

Pushing design forward

By Academy Xi

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We asked five design experts how they are progressing the design agenda within their e-commerce businesses. 

Key themes include: 

  • Steering clear of design jargon
  • Collaborative rituals
  • Team charters
  • Saying yes over no
  • Hiring for curiosity

James Ratsasane, Experience & Design Lead, Aesop.

Let’s unpack the term ‘Design Maturity’. How do you see it? 

This is a great question, it’s also one of those jargon terms that has entered business vernacular, but for me design maturity is essentially an applied strategy. When I’m evaluating design maturity I look at three levels. The most basic is operational—designers are working on projects and creating deliverables for requirements. (Insert your favourite design thinking frameworks, artefacts and deliverables.)  It’s what would be considered base level expectation..The next level is tactical—the organisation is thinking about design practice as a function deeply integrated into product development. Good ways of working have been defined, tool kits and capability uplift activities are in place to ensure continuous improvement. Healthy collaborative rituals such as critiques and studios, playbacks showcase are bringing everyone in the organisation along on the journey.

Most organisations with a design team will have a handle on the first two, but I would argue that maturity goes beyond operational performance, the pinnacle is the strategic level where design influences decisions that impacts market differentiation. At this level, brands and companies have developed their own language of visual, interaction and service design that enables them to provide personalised and locally relevant experiences and ultimately extend their offering beyond the transactional. Their ecosystem is well thought out and seamless to their users. Eventually their products and services inform emerging trends and patterns and improve the lives of their customers.

Depending on the area organisations operate, whether its products and services, social good or government policy, their level of design maturity is underpinned by design ethics.
Practitioners at this level have an implicit understanding that design has consequences, both intended and unintended. Mature design is strategic because it considers a preferred future, and its impact on the next billion users.

What have you seen work well in terms of raising an organisation’s level of design maturity?

I’ve seen a few things work well. Design teams should have a charter, a social contract on how they will lift each other up. Having a knowledge base and knowledge transfer is crucial for uplifting your teams. Structures such as chapters, guilds or communities of practice can really help grow a design culture. Similarly, rituals for removing blockers and creating systems to increase efficiencies so people can focus on the true nature of design. I also believe in encouraging designers to show work often and early. Work needs to be made visible to everyone in the organisation, no us and them, and no silos please. I also like to prioritise programmes and feedback loops that enable the organisation to really understand their customer’s unmet needs. The emphasis should be on equity and inclusion. Finally, we’ve got to all embrace failure. It’s an opportunity to improve the design of your product or service.

What advice would you give to businesses wanting to be more ‘design-led’ in practice?

First, create a north star by working with your stakeholders and leadership to educate and define what good design is for your organisation. This alignment of principles will ensure standards and expectations, as well as make decisions easier. I recommend giving design a platform and ensuring that designers keep track of their UX outcomes, demonstrating how these cascade up to the team, portfolio and organisation objectives and key results (OKRs). Businesses need to empower their product teams to ideate wide, fail-fast, measure and learn often. The vision piece is key here. I always recommend hiring curious people with a growth and collaborative mindsets. The final piece is rewarding experimentation and continuous improvement. You need to nurture a design culture that is willing to innovate. This is how you get to market differentiation. Innovation doesn’t have to be expensive. It can happen with the smallest interventions.

Daniel Foulds, UX Design Lead, Kmart

Let’s unpack the term ‘Design Maturity’. How do you see it? 

Let’s look at the various perspectives. Start by looking within your own team, then to the teams you regularly interact with and then the overall organisation. Within your immediate team, what does the UX practice look like? What are regular processes, activities and the rigour around them? For example, how are design critiques run, what’s the contribution like from individuals, what is the output like? What tools are available to UX’ers within their toolbox? How often are these tools used and referenced within cross functional teams? (e.g: journey maps, research tools, design system.) Zooming outwards, how does the practice work with these cross-functional teams? How are new teams/team members onboarded? How is the governance process of design run across teams? For these teams we partner with, how intune are they with what we do as a UX practice? What does collaboration look like? It’s got to be a partnership, we aren’t just a service. What is the broader adoption like of some of our tools? Do they see the value of building empathy via our personas? Are they adopting the qualitative and quantitative insights that we can support them with? Essentially, are we both pulling in the same direction? Zooming out again to the overall business. This often becomes a harder proposition. At this scale, there are a wide range of ingredients needed to embed a design culture. The key ingredients are persistence, coaching, unity, collaboration & time. 

What have you seen work well in terms of raising an organisation’s level of design maturity?

Show the value. Take those you are working with on the journey. Business-centric staff can see things differently to a designer. Be respectful of that. Inclusion and partnership are so important. Talking the same language as a business is crucial. It often helps to speak about the size of the opportunity (dollars plus the customer impact) that relates to a UX improvement. For example, you may have a strong hypothesis as to why there is a cart abandonment at a particular part of the checkout. Do some leg work. Leverage the research tools you have and partner with other teams to get the necessary insight to support the hypothesis. Frame the opportunity in a way that helps them understand the value of the missed opportunity. For example, ‘based on our AOV (average order value), if we were able to remedy this abandonment by doing X,Y the return could be $Z…and we make customers much happier in the process.’

What advice would you give to businesses wanting to be more ‘design-led’ in practice?

If the desire is there, that’s attitudinal and half the battle. Look to establish an approach that suits both parties and the goal of being more design-led. Partner up with key people. Get some supporters to help you drive this forward and focus on what can be done together. Can you set up an education series? What tools can you leverage – can you set up a Slack group or sharepoint for ease of visibility? How can parts of the business be included more regularly? Are there particular areas of interest that the business is more keen to understand eg: personalisation or AB testing for example? Capitalise on this interest initially.

Get to know Daniel and know what it’s like to become a mentor

Anthony Currenti, UX Lead, Catch.com.au

Let’s unpack the term ‘Design Maturity’. How do you see it?

A lot of time is given to discussing design maturity in terms of methodologies, processes, design thinking, innovation etc. I believe that the key differentiator for businesses in achieving design maturity is when design informs rather than performing a function of a problem or product lifecycle. It is a matter of how operations are set up to drive a business in that direction. I also find those businesses that have a high level of design maturity prioritise iterative learning. The longer a business spends on a product, the longer they typically see it shift away from true customer wants and needs. Often it is better to get a product shipped and then improve it based on research and data iteratively.

What have you seen work well in terms of raising an organisation’s level of design maturity?

As designers, we in fact spend a lot of time with non-designers. Our role is often to bring teams of experts together to identify and address a problem. I find it is often easier to break down barriers when you speak in a language that is accessible. It is about open language. At Catch.com.au we have moved away from design jargon. Instead of using terms like ‘ideate’ and ‘prototype’ we’ve moved to using statements such as ‘What are some ideas we can come up with?’ and ‘How are we going to test these with our customers?’ This is a way of democratising design and is a vital step towards organisational design maturity.

What advice would you give to businesses wanting to be more ‘design-led’ in practice?

I would advise against automatically thinking that the only way to build a new product is to knock the old one down. Insead, I have often seen success when businesses use what they have as ‘scaffolding’ for their next project. The ‘holy grail’ of design is really in being able to give your work a currency that executive teams understand. For example, if we release a feature and need to hire a designer to bring it to life, we need metrics to show the value of the initiative. Say we then see a lift in customer ‘stickiness’, we then need to work out what that ‘stickiness’ translates to in terms of Gross Transaction Value or another key financial metric. If we can do that, we can then build a case around the value of design in language that makes sense to decision makers. This can be very challenging however as it requires you to have all of those metrics in place but I have seen it be successful if you can start to implement this over time.

Vida Asrina, Head of Experience Design, Endeavour X

Let’s unpack the term ‘Design Maturity’. How do you see it?

Although it might seem counterintuitive, I think achieving ‘design maturity’ actually hinges on whether or not designers can unlearn design. It’s about showing empathy. When designers use complicated language, tools and methodology, they are actually creating an understanding barrier inside their organisation. What we have found works at Endeavour X is to avoid using typical design language. We have shifted the way we talk with other internal stakeholders so that we are focussed on outcomes rather than jargon. This works well because it allows us to invite those internal stakeholders into the world of design in a non-threatening way. Once we have built those relationships it allows us to take them on a design journey. This is an essential part of the process as, in order for an organisation to reach design maturity, the whole business needs to be along for the ride.

What have you seen work well in terms of raising an organisation’s level of design maturity?

I have a favourite saying: ‘Relationship’ over ‘ship’. If you have a good relationship, you can ship anything. If you don’t have a good relationship, you won’t be able to see any of your initiatives through to organisational adoption. In terms of building these relationships, I have a mindset that I encourage my team to use when engaging with other internal teams. Instead of saying ‘no’ to ideas that others have, I ask them to say ‘yes’ and go on to explain the potential risk factors. The moment you say ‘no’ to an idea, you construct a barrier. People feel rejected. They feel as if they are not listened to. When you say ‘Yes, and…’, people feel heard and communication can begin to open up.

What advice would you give to businesses wanting to be more ‘design-led’ in practice?

I would recommend finding a practice that works in terms of getting funding or design ‘buy-in’ more broadly. This is how momentum builds. Find an advocate internally who agrees to a short-term design commitment. For example, this could be hiring a Service Designer for a 3-month contract or funding a short-term design project. This initial buy-in allows you to show the value of design. Then things snowball. One design project becomes two. One service designer then becomes a team of service designers. You need to really find that first initial internal client that is willing to try a different design-led approach.

Gowri Penkar, Service Design Lead, carsales.com.au

Let’s unpack the term ‘Design Maturity’. How do you see it?

I see ‘design maturity’ and the role of a designer as having the ability to bring down the walls between design and the rest of the business. It is about being human centred to our customers but also our stakeholders who are tasked with hard-to-achieve targets. Designers working closely with product owners, technologists and multi disciplinary teams to change mindsets all with the goal of turning customer insights into tangible solutions to business challenges.

What have you seen work well in terms of raising an organisation’s level of design maturity?

Most businesses that I’ve worked for, know and understand that they have challenges. They often have legacy systems that create an extra layer of complexity. Some (designers) see this as an opportunity to introduce something entirely new and shiny. However, this is bound to have an opposite effect on stakeholders who are painfully aware of all the reasons why that cannot go ahead.  Good design is about helping our stakeholders achieve their goals and in the process subtly changing mindsets. It is encouraging people to look through different lens than they are used to. It is working within the constraints of the business while helping our stakeholders understand customer behaviour to better understand their needs and solve for them. In my experience, successful designers are the ones who are able to find the middle ground between what supports the overarching business’ objectives and what will make for a great customer experience. Organisations that have design teams that are able to strike this balance will be further down the path towards achieving ‘design maturity’ by virtue of the way they are able to communicate with the wider business.

What advice would you give to businesses wanting to be more ‘design-led’ in practice?

Having a customer/user/ member-first approach is the way for businesses to be design-led. The task of designers within these organisations is much deeper, though. They need to be a design leader by speaking the language of the business to communicate the value of design. They need to take the time to stand in the shoes of some of their stakeholders. They need to ask themselves – What is the organisation’s objective, goals and what do they want to achieve, and how can I help them, rather than just building something because they’ve been asked to or because it’s the latest / greatest new thing. They’ll need to inculcate in our stakeholders the values of design instead of spewing them with design jargon that makes little sense to someone who isn’t a designer. Good designers influence others in the team to think like them and bring everyone on a journey. By doing this, designers play the role of the sherpa to support stakeholders along their journey to a more design-led way of working.

Get to know more of Gowri and her design journey

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